A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson


What a book! A Short History of Nearly Everything takes you through the history of the world. Or should I say universe, as it exists from microscopic to cosmic levels? It is a literary history of the scientific research in the modern world. It states only facts and nothing else.

The author takes you to the world of stars and galaxies. And gives you data on their ages, gases, movements, and units to measure all this. You feel minuscule and life suddenly seems carefree as you realize you are not even a speck in the universe. And your lifetime cannot even be described in those units of measurement. Next segment, he takes you to the microscopic world that exists in each cell of your body. You wonder what are you, a universe of these small organisms that make you. You for a moment feel responsible for all of them. But then soon realize that there is nothing much you can do. We hardly know these two extremes and whatever we know is too little to know the reality. Everything we know is more or less a figment of our imagination based on bits of information.

Then he takes you to the world of fossils, volcanoes, ocean, and rocks. You may think what is there in these, but ask the scientists who spent lives studying and documenting them. He takes you for a walk around a live volcano and to the ice age. He takes you to the potential world of dinosaurs, where their remains were found. And how they were recreated in the museums. He also introduces us to Lucy, our potential ancestor. But he restricts himself primarily to the western world and mostly Europe. Only towards the end of the book, he touches Africa and China. But then maybe not so much scientific inquiry was happening in these regions at the time it was happening in western worlds. Or maybe there is no relevant documentation available about the same.

Most interesting part of the book A Short History of Nearly Everything, is the world of scientists, especially the ones whose work has not received the due credit. He tells you how they chanced upon the experiment, how they devoted their lives to their pursuits, where and when they published the findings. How they were received and when did they finally caught the attention of the scientific community. He talks of prior work that was done by scientists for breakthrough discoveries and inventions. He talks about similar work that was being done independently in different parts of the world.

The bibliography for the book runs into 75 pages. So you can only imagine the amount of research that has gone into this work. The writing style is engaging and informing while spiced by wit and humor. Bryson takes you to unimaginable dimensions and then explains the dimensions in terms of what you understand. For example, to explain a lifetime of humans on earth, he says, imagine that if the timeline of the earth is equal to your arm length, then the timeline for human existence is just the tip of your nail. He repeats these kinds of examples through the book for unimaginable measures. And makes you realize the dimensions in a very conceivable manner. For me, this was the most interesting part of the book.

The crux of the book and maybe life lies in these lines from the book: ‘Life wants to be, life doesn’t always want to be much; life from time to time goes extinct and life goes on.’

A Short History of Nearly Everything is a perfect gift for young adults with a scientific bent of mind. And an educational yet entertaining read for just about everyone. I wish I had read it during my student days; my sense of wonder would have been different.

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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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